Tolkien's Lesson for September 11

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conservative and liberal élites have been portraying Bush’s
war on terrorism as a sort of crusade of good against evil. They
have even tried to enlist John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973)
– author of the “Book of the Century,” The
Lord of the Rings
, for this endeavor. In their view, the
coalition led by the United States is like the “league of the free”
who fight against Sauron of Mordor – that is, bin Laden of

this comparison is deeply mistaken. The main character of Tolkien’s
trilogy is not a person but a thing – the Ring itself. What
does this ring represent, and where can it be found in the current
world? The Ring is absolute power. It makes its owner irresponsible,
enslaves him, deprives him of his personality and free will. While
making him absolutely powerful, it absolutely corrupts him, as Lord
Acton would say. On the other hand, the Ring gives the illusion
of ruling and ordering the world and society. J.R.R. Tolkien would
hardly have taken a position in favor of the war on terrorism. He
no doubt would have found it hard to join the “New World Order”
at the end of the Cold War.

is what Arthur Calder-Marshall said in his enthusiastic review of
The Lord of the Rings: “Frodo, pursued by the Black Riders,
is so frightened that to escape them, he puts on the Ring. But instead
of becoming invisible, he becomes plainer to the Black Riders, the
Ring having the same nature of evil as they have. I do not think
Tolkien himself would object to my concluding that the parallel
to this in the modern world is when one nation, convinced of the
justice of its cause, employs a weapon of terror against its enemies,
and in doing so becomes possessed by the very evil that it is fighting
to destroy in the enemy.” (See Yates 1995, p.233)

himself was horrified by war. On October 23, 1944, he wrote: “I
have just been out to look up: the noise is terrific: the biggest
for a long time, skywide Armada. I suppose it is allright to say
so, as by the time that this reaches you somewhere will have ceased
to exist and all the world will have known about it and already
forgotten it… With regard to the blasphemy, one can only recall
(when applicable) the words Father, Forgive them, for they know
not what they do – or say. And somehow I fancy that Our Lord actually
is more pained by offences we commit against one other than those
we commit against himself, esp. his incarnate person.” (Tolkien
1995, p.97)

he defined Adolf Hitler as a “ruddy little ignoramus” who is “ruining,
perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble
northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have
ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.” (Tolkien 1995,
pp.55-56) And he was caught by a deep and bitter hilarity when he
heard “of that bloodthirsty old murderer Josef Stalin inviting all
nations to join a happy family of folks devoted to the abolition
of tyranny & intolerance!” (Tolkien 1995, p.65)

might think that Tolkien opposed totalitarian regimes while appreciating
democracy as the perfect form of government. Actually, not only
was he a proud supporter of the English monarchy, he also strongly
criticized democracy: “I am not a ‘democrat’ only because ‘humility’
and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to
mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal
smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till
some Orc gets hold of a ring of power – and then we get and are
getting slavery.” (Tolkien 1995, p.246) With regard to the atomic
bomb, he wrote: “Mordor is in our midst. And I regret to note that
the billowing cloud recently pictured did not mark the fall of Barad-dûr,
but was produced by its allies – or at least by persons who have
decided to use the Ring for their own (of course most excellent)
purposes.” (Tolkien 1995, p.165; see also Mingardi and Stagnaro

fact, it is clear from the very beginning of the novel that the
Ring can’t be used against the enemy. The Ring “is altogether evil – explains the Elvish lord Elrond – Its strength is too great for
anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great
power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril.
The very desire of it corrupts the heart. If any of the Wise should
with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts,
he would then set off himself on Sauron’s throne, and yet another
Dark Lord would appear. And that is another reason why the Ring
should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a
danger even to the Wise.” (Tolkien 2001, p.261)

can’t be defeated by merely changing who holds it; indeed, it should
be eliminated, so that men could have no such means to dominate
their fellows. After all, Frodo’s goal in The Lord of the Rings
is to destroy the Ring: not to hide it or “redeem” Sauron, or even
to give the Ring to somebody who is perhaps “good and wise.” Since
the Ring is evil in itself, it will always turn any action undertaken
with it into evil, whether or not its owner intended to do good.

himself pointed out that one should always be sure (at least, inasfar
as it is possible) to join the right party. He didn’t believe a
good end may justify evil means, nor that good means can make an
evil end good. As Tom Shippey points out, “If evil were only the
absence of good, for instance, then the Ring could never by anything
other than a psychic amplifier; it would not ‘betray’ its possessors,
and all they would need do is put it aside and think pure thoughts.
In Middle-Earth we are assured that it would be fatal. However if
evil were merely a hateful and external power without echo in the
hearts of the good, then someone might have to take the Ring to
the Cracks of Doom, but it need not be Frodo: Gandalf could be trusted
with it, while whoever went would have only to distrust his enemies,
not his friends and not himself. As it is the nature of the Ring
is integral to the story.” (Shippey 1992, pp. 132-133)

Tolkien has been accused of dividing people – or at least the characters
of his novels – into “good” and “evil.” This isn’t true: Tolkien,
as a Christian, strongly thought that good and evil do exist and
are separate; at the same time, he knew that people are both good
and evil. Good guys may be wrong, and bad guys may change their
minds. The hero of The Lord of the Rings fails his mission
and finally isn’t strong enough to destroy the Ring – it will fall
into the fire of Mount Doom only thanks to his past mercy in saving
Gollum’s life. On the other hand, Gollum moves very close to repentance.

course, this does not mean that one must choose every time between
two alternatives, nor that choice is easy. “The utter stupid waste
of war — wrote Tolkien – not only material but moral and spiritual,
is so staggering to those who have to endure it. And always was
(despite the poets), and always will be (despite propagandists).”
(Tolkien 1995, p.75)

JRRT did not share pacifist ideas, since they can’t explain the
reasons for war. “All things and deeds – he said – have a value
in themselves, apart from their ’causes’ and ‘effects.’ No man can
estimate what is really happening at the present sub specie aeternitatis.
All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience,
is that evil labours with vast power and perpetual success – in
vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout
in.” (Tolkien 1995, p.76)

the perspective of The Lord of the Rings, war does not decide
the future of the world. Of course, battles are big and important.
However, they are not decisive. Even if they can be won by the good,
they have no meaning without the success of Frodo’s mission. Indeed,
the Dark Lord seems to be very likely to advance until the end,
when the Ring is destroyed thanks to Providence. Such an unexpected
end is among the deepest beliefs of Tolkien. In order to define
it, he coined the word eucatastrophe: “The sudden happy turn in
a story with pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued
is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was
there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because
it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material
cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if
a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane (for which
see the essay) – that this is indeed how things do really work in
the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by
saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible
in the greatest Fairy Story – and it produces that essential emotion:
Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so
like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow
are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in
Love.” (Tolkien 1995, p.100)

you accept such a truth, you hardly going to find either aggressive
nationalism or cowardly pacifism attractive. When one holds the
truth that world goes on within a greater plan, and therefore any
action has to be judged in itself, one will not fall into uncertainty.
In Tolkien’s view, people are responsible for their actions before
God, so that they must act according to His law, even though human
laws are different, if they want to gain after their earthly existence.
“Sometimes we need to be able to change our minds or even to disobey
authority, when that authority invites us to go against our consciences,”
Giuseppe Roncari noted. (Roncari 2002)

today’s war on terrorism seems a war to own the Ring, rather than
a war to destroy it. Neither Bush’s nor bin Laden’s supporters fight
for liberty; they all fight to strengthen their own power. One can
hardly choose to join one or the other – and should only ask whether
there is still a place for common, peaceful people in the lands
of the opposing war lords. Indeed, the only rational position is
that of Treebeard: “I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because
nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me… And there
are some things, of course, whose side I’m altogether not on; I
am against them altogether.” (Tolkien 2001, p.461)


Giuseppe 2002, “The Ring” in: Franco Manni (ed.) Introduzione
a Tolkien Milan: Simonelli Editore.

Alberto and STAGNARO Carlo 2002, “Tolkien
v. Power
” Ludwig von Mises Institute, February 26, 2002.

Tom A. 1992 (1982), The
Road to Middle-Earth
London: Grafton.

John Ronald Reuel 1995 (1981), The
Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
London: Harper Collins.

John Ronald Reuel 2001 (1954-55), The
Lord of the Rings
London: Harper Collins.

Jessica 1995, “Tolkien the Anti-Totalitarian” in: Patricia Reynolds
and Glen H. Goodknight (ed.) Proceedings
of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference
(Keble College, Oxford,
1992) Altadena, CA: The Tolkien Society and The Mythopoeic Society.

25, 2002

Stagnaro [send him mail]
co-edits the libertarian magazine “Enclave
and edited the book “Waco.
Una strage di stato americana
.” Here’s his

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